Being a teenager is a stressful experience in and of itself. Your body is growing and changing, and your mental state is in a constant flux thanks to the hormones pulsing through your veins – not to mention added responsibilities and the pressures of figuring out what you want to do with your life.
Now, imagine dealing with all that while also having to overcome trauma.
Traumatic experiences can haunt any person of any age, but it can prove especially difficult for a teenager thanks to the unique mix of circumstances they face. And that is why it is imperative that the parent of any teenager know how to help their teen cope should they witness or experience a traumatic event.
Events such as domestic or family violence, community violence (such as a shooting, stabbing, assault, burglary or even severe bullying), sexual or physical abuse, a serious car accident, a natural disaster such as hurricane or tornado, or, yes, a pandemic, can leave a serious and lasting mark on your teen. And if you simply ignore that experience or address it in the wrong way, you could only end up further harming your child.
The good news is that positive and assured responses to trauma can make a real difference in the life of a teen and help them to deal with common trauma reactions such as:
- Avoiding/denying feelings
- Constantly dwelling on the trauma
- Distancing from friends and family
- Changes in appetite and/or sleep habits
- Anger or resentment
- Panic and anxiety, including worrying about the future
- Mood swings and irritability
- Academic issues, such as trouble with memory and concentration, and/or refusing to attend school
- Participation in risky or illegal behavior, like drinking alcohol
- Depression, and perhaps expression of suicidal thoughts
Part of the reason for these feelings is that teens, because they are starting to stretch their independence, suddenly feel out of control of a world that they were just starting to take some form of control over (at least in their minds). Another reason is that these are typical reactions for people in any stage of life.
Trauma may also cause teens to feel bad for others affected by a specific experience, and they will – like children of all ages – desperately want to know why said event occurred.
If you want to help your teen successfully navigate trauma and ensure their optimum mental health, there are things you can do to help them cope.
SET AN EXAMPLE
This is perhaps most important. Understand that your teen’s response to a disaster or traumatic event can be greatly influenced by your own behavior. Despite what they may say, teens still look to their parents for comfort and reassurance at times of crisis. And if you experienced a traumatic event alongside your child, it’s crucial to take steps to cope with your own stress that stems from that event. This accomplishes several things. Most importantly, you will be calmer yourself, which allows you to make better decisions and provide a better presence and influence for your child. In all likelihood, if your teen sees you reacting in a measured manner, addressing your stress without panic or fear, they are more likely to do the same. Remember, you set the template for how they act and react.
With that said, you should also understand that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to feel after a traumatic event, so don’t try to dictate what your child should be thinking or feeling. Rather your job is to provide a template and act as a guide. Trauma can take away your teen’s sense of safety, making the world a more dangerous and frightening place. It may also make it more difficult for them to trust their environment and other people. You can help counter this by affirming their sense of safety and security.
Other methods of going about this include:
Keeping their feelings bottled up or attempting to ignore what they are experiencing is unhealthy. So, let your teen know that whatever they are undergoing is normal, and that even unpleasant feelings will pass if they talk about them. And if they are reluctant to talk with you, encourage them to open up to another responsible adult that they may have a connection with – such as a family friend, relative, teacher, or religious figure. You can also consider peer organized groups that could help with support (such as a church group, FCA or another similar type of club).
Also be sure to keep your promises; this will help rebuild your child’s trust by being trustworthy. And if you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it. Don’t jeopardize your child’s trust in you by making something up.
GIVE THEM TIME TO GRIEVE
It takes time to get over any traumatic event – think back to how you felt when a favorite grandparent passed, or you lost a pet, moved or parents divorced. And if the trauma your teen has experienced is starker than those events, then you can imagine it will take longer to recover. So do not press them to be “OK” in a quick manner.
MAKE THEM KNOW THEY’RE LOVED AND CARED FOR
Hugging and reassuring your teen – yes, even a teenager – can help make them feel secure, which is of paramount importance. If they try to tough it out and avoid physical contact, you can still find other ways to give them physical affirmation – even something as simple as a hand on a shoulder.
Continually dwelling on or thinking about a past trauma can overwhelm your child’s nervous system. Instead, try speaking of the future and making plans. This can help counteract the common feeling among traumatized children that the future is scary, bleak, and unpredictable.
You should also encourage them to take part in activities that keep their mind occupied so they’re not solely focusing on the traumatic event. Limit exposure to media – such as television and social media that may focus on a particular trauma (such as a pandemic or accident). Because even though teens can digest news coverage to an extent, they are not always able to detach themselves from said coverage, which could lead to more stress and obsession. You should also encourage them to do the things they love (such as sports and hobbies). Above all, make sure your child has space and time for rest, play, and fun.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the role activities play in helping your teen to cope with trauma.
- Maintain familiar routines – Sticking to a schedule will help to make the world seem more stable again. Try to maintain regular times for meals, homework, and family activities.
- Make your teen feel helpful – Give them small tasks and responsibilities in the household, then praise them for what they have done and how they have handled themselves. However, DO NOT overburden your teen with too many responsibilities, especially adult-like ones, as this will only increase their anxiety.
- Find a sport – Playing a physical game that also requires mental focus (basketball, soccer, running, martial arts, swimming, etc.), especially those that require moving both the arms and legs can help reset your teen’s nervous system and prevent them from feeling “stuck” – a sensation that often follows a traumatic experience. At the very least play some of their favorite music and dance together. Once they begin to move they will start to feel more energetic and thus begin to look for more involvement – it is a positive cycle.
If traumatic stress symptoms don’t ease up for a prolonged period of time (six weeks or more), they may be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you find yourself facing this possibility, it is a good idea to contact a doctor and follow professional advice on how to proceed.
Similarly, you should also be aware of substance abuse. Teens are particularly at risk for turning to alcohol or drugs to numb feelings of anxiety. If your teen has been behaving secretively or is seemingly drunk or high, get in touch with a doctor. In this event, be sure to talk with your teen in a kind way. Remember, they are going through trauma and looking for any method to cope.
At Rainbow Children’s Home, we have spent years shaping an approach designed to produce positive outcomes for teenaged women. And one of the goals of Rainbow Children’s Home is to help those adolescents understand how to cope with trauma, including severe personal trauma.
The young women that Rainbow Children’s Home mentors, nurtures and allows to shine have faced difficult times in their young lives, but we see every day the resilience and spirit yearning to burst forth and capture their place in this world. It is our task to provide them with the safe and nurturing environment that allows them to take flight and discover their own path forward.
You can further the mission of Rainbow Children’s Home by donating today. To find out how to donate or engage in other ways, visit Rainbowchildrenshome.org.